The year 1996 was full of firsts for Spelman College: Nicole Kiana Dickson became the Department of Art’s first Fulbright Fellow, Elizabeth Catlett talked with students in the school’s sculpture studio, but most importantly, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art opened in February, shifting a culture. As the museum approaches its 20th anniversary, the institution represents a great deal in a contemporary context.
Spelman’s debut exhibition – “Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists” – was the first major exhibition of contemporary art by African-American women. The exhibit reintroduced the world to remarkable artists like Lorna Simpson, Faith Ringgold, Carrie Mae Weems, Betye Saar, Lois Mailou Jones and Alison Saar.
As notable as the 25 artists included in the opening exhibition, the curators and contributors to the catalog addressed the omission and influence of African-American women in art and cultural history.
Undeniably, the initial tone was set with an all-star roster that included Jontyle Theresa Robinson, former Associate Professor of Art History at Spelman College; Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, former Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Director of Howard University’s Gallery of Art; Pearl Cleage, an award-winning playwright and former Spelman College artist-in-residence; Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the founder of the Spelman Women’s Research and Resources Center; M. Akua McDaniel, former Associate Professor of Art History and Acting Director of Spelman College Museum of Fine Art; Lowery Stokes Sims, art historian and curator; Judith Wilson, a Yale University Art Historian; Maya Angelou; and Johnnetta B. Cole, former Spelman College president.
Twenty years later, the museum has been placed in national standing among many other world-renowned cultural and educational institutions. Led by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the Director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and an alumna of Spelman College, it’s no surprise the museum is celebrating its 20th year with a great deal of triumphs and victories.
Driven and Focused
With a mission intact and a place to call home, Brownlee was appointed director in 2001. For nearly 15 years, and as long as the museum has been open, it has been led by Brownlee, a Spelman alumna and Duke University graduate.
With the opening of newer cultural institutions, the anniversary of Spelman’s museum functions as a reintroduction of sorts. The museum, which has become a leading authority in art by and about women of the African Diaspora, emphasizes that mission and cultural specific institutions serve an important role.
With everything at its back and beneath its wings, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art was sure to soar. In 2013, Brownlee’s award from the High Museum of Art was a testimony that the museum had done that, but also is still reaching new heights. Recipient of the David C. Driskell Prize, Brownlee was recognized for the work she has done at Spelman and her contribution to the international canon of African-American art history and women of the diaspora.
“For the longest time I’ve said in the past, ‘We’ve been unruly teenagers,’ and now we’re going to take a whole new phase into our evolution,” Brownlee said. “It’s an exciting phase of our evolution, now we get to really start to not only put our stamp on things, but we also get to hone our direction, hone our mission, hone our audiences, both in terms of expectations and what we’re going to present.”
For its 20th anniversary, the museum is presenting “AFRICA FORECAST: Fashioning Contemporary Life,” an original exhibit curated by Brownlee and Erika Dalya Massaquoi. This exhibit demonstrates the scope and span that Black women are creating. The show, in many ways, interrogates how Black women, not just women, artists and designers of the African diaspora, aren’t showing up in terms of large museum projects. Relatively small in size, the show emphasizes how Black women are creating work that’s visually arresting and content rich.
“What’s fascinating to me is what people often assume about the institution,” Brownlee said. “They don’t know that from a square footage standpoint we’re small, 4,500 square feet, compared to a lot of our peers.
“They also don’t know that our incredible team is just four and half people. They think that there’s this machine that’s making some of this excitement happen, but at the end of the day, we’re small but mighty.”
Undeniably, the team alongside Brownlee – Makeba Dixon-Hill, Wyatt Phillips and Anne Collins Smith – has shown what that means. Both Dixon-Hill and Smith are Spelman alumna, and it holds true that women of the college have long made strides in the arts at and beyond the gates of the college.
Breaking the 4 Percent Barrier
Last year, the The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), presented results of their art museum staff demographic survey. The survey, which measured the ethnic and gender diversity American art museums, brought to the forefront that African-Americans make up only 4 percent of top tier administrative positions across the United States.
African-Americans have long sought more inclusion. Whether it be art movement specific survey shows or all white curatorial staffs, African Americans have always pushed to be a part of the conversation, and the survey was nonetheless discouraging on many levels.
Holding firm to their commitment to diversify the museum field, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded a new curatorial studies program at Spelman to address the problems outlined in the staff demographic survey. A first of its kind at a historically black college or university, the program is unparalleled.
“It’s a really gratifying moment,” Brownlee said. “it gives us a chance to reflect, and we’ve got a year of the program under our belt. The students have gone and had internships, several have worked with us on various projects, and they’re connecting research.”
With 10 students accepted into the program, it’s an exciting collaboration between the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and the Department of Art and Art History.
Over the summer, students interned at art museums around the world that include The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Detroit Institute of Arts, and many more. In its second year, the courses are led by Mora Beauchamp-Byrd, a visiting assistant professor of Art History and Curatorial Studies, an art historian, curator and arts administrator.
“My brief tenure as a Director’s Fellow at the Cleveland Museum Of Art was nothing less than nourishing and transformative. Every experience I had has widened my understanding and idea of what is possible for me as I pursue a career in the museum profession,” said Tyra Seals, who served as a Director Fellow at the Cleveland Museum of Art.”The program introduces African American students to the reality of museum practice as a diverse and welcoming place, instead of a staunch monolith.”
Jayson Overby, Jr.